Exploring the Outer Shores of Gwaii Haanas

Guests and crew of Outer Shores Expeditions' Passing Cloud went on an adventurous - and revealing - hike through the forests of Gwaii Haanas today. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Guests and crew of Outer Shores Expeditions’ Passing Cloud went on an adventurous – and revealing – hike through the forests of Gwaii Haanas today. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Friday, August 8, 2014

If I had any lingering doubts as to the uniqueness if sailing aboard Outer Shores Expeditions’ Passing Cloud, they evaporated at 0730 this morning as I kayaked around Bag Harbour at the south end of Burnaby Narrows prior to breakfast.

Another guest and I took the opportunity to take in a pre-breakfast kayak. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Another guest and I took the opportunity to take in a pre-breakfast kayak. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

It was during this idyllic paddle around Beg Bay that I realized one very important aspect of the Outer Shores experience: other expeditions import their scientists. Here, the scientists just happen to have their own boat, and they’re putting it to good use in guiding us around Haida Gwaii’s Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site.

Kayak Epiphany No.1: Kayaking and resting a DSLR camera on your lap is inherently tough.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Kayak Epiphany No.2: I am not nearly as smart as Russ, Joel, or Kai, who really are, in a sense, our expedition leaders. I can, however, learn from them. My reasons for being here are very different from those of my fellow guests: I am here because I love sailing on ships of all shapes and sizes. The fortunate by-product of that is that I now have the unique opportunity to learn and expand my knowledge about the diverse ecosystem of Gwaii Haanas. It’s like a mini-university wrapped up in an expedition sailing adventure.

The sheer amount of marine life just a few feet under the kayak was astonishing. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The sheer amount of marine life just a few feet under the kayak was astonishing. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

While I was out bobbing around in the bay, I had a look at the many types of starfish that we’re anchored to the sandy bottom in the shallows, which were easy to view thanks to the small window inset into the floor of the kayak. I once read that we know more about our solar system than we do about what lies beneath the surface of our own oceans, and I can certainly believe it: just a few feet under the keel of my kayak is an almost alien world.

Reflections of Passing Cloud. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Reflections of Passing Cloud. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Back onboard Passing Cloud, breakfast was served just before 0830, and consisted of fruit salad, French Toast (with Canadian maple syrup, of course), hot cereal with raisins, yogurt, and fruit juice – plus tea and coffee. Having set meals requires a bit of flexibility on the part of guests, but it is not an uncommon situation among smaller vessels. If you have dietary restrictions, they’re more than happy to accommodate. I am allergic to nuts, and everyone onboard has been more than accommodating. In fact, Passing Cloud’s cook, Cate, hasn’t used then in a single dish yet, and she always makes a point of keeping me informed. I get the impression that, given the right amount of advance notice, they could accommodate nearly any request.

On-shore, we all went for a group hike in the forest. There are no trails here, my friends. Expect to get up-close and personal with nature. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

On-shore, we all went for a group hike in the forest. There are no trails here, my friends. Expect to get up-close and personal with nature. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

After breakfast this morning, we went ashore for an exploratory hike through the forest. To reach said forest, we crossed a stream with a handful of salmon swimming in it. There was also evidence of ancient salmon farming activities, with wooden stakes placed at even intervals near the shoreline.

Salmon – or at least, their carcasses – also played an important role on our hike deep within the forest. We found their bones on the forest floor by the dozen, and even nestled atop stumps and high up in trees. Interestingly, their decaying carcasses provide trees, plants and even the forest floor with essential nutrients that, if removed, would alter the ecosystem if the entire forest.

Salmon bones rest on the floor of the forest. There were literally thousands of bones scattered throughout the forest, the remains of many a bear lunch. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Salmon bones rest on the floor of the forest. There were literally thousands of bones scattered throughout the forest, the remains of many a bear lunch. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

So how do salmon carcasses – or bones – wind up fifteen minutes walking distance inland from the river? Bears. The bears of Haida Gwaii like to eat in peace, so they search out their own little patch of forest in which to enjoy their meal. Interestingly, while grizzly bears used to be quite common here, the only type of bear still found in Haida Gwaii and Gwaii Haanas is the Haida Gwaii Black Bear, or Ursus americanus carlottae. After being told that their jawline is much larger than the typical Black Bear (My, what big teeth you have!), we were also told that they’re seldom aggressive towards humans unless they are surprised. The Haida traditionally considered the bear to be the Chief of the Forest, and a relative of human beings.

Carrying salmon this far inland probably isn’t that much of a chore; dragging the seal carcass we found the remains of probably posed more of a challenge. Yet, there it was: the bones of an entire seal resting on the forest floor in a pretty and secluded little clearing.

Passing Cloud team member Kai points out the remains of a seal deep within the forest. It would have likely been dragged here by a bear. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Passing Cloud team member Kai points out the remains of a seal deep within the forest. It would have likely been dragged here by a bear. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Our entire journey ashore this morning lasted approximately three hours, and required us to get up close and personal with nature: climbing fallen logs, going under downed tree trunks, and traversing slippery banks. After banging my head twice, hitting my knee and getting hung up on a fallen tree while simultaneously crawling on my hands and knees through the mud, I have decided Mother Nature still hates me – but we’re working on it.

Salmon vertebrae. These were about five feet off the ground in the remains of a tree stump. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Salmon vertebrae. These were about five feet off the ground in the remains of a tree stump. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Kai is definitely one with the forest. His knowledge is immense. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Kai is definitely one with the forest. His knowledge is immense. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Of course, a nice hot lunch was waiting for us back onboard our private schooner, complete with another one of Cate’s now-famous (and delicious) soups.

We’ve also rechristened Passing Cloud’s main lounge, “The Sweatlodge” thanks to its powerful gas stove that rapidly heats the entire room when turned on. It’s the perfect antidote, however, coming bock onboard after being caught out in the rain as we were this afternoon.

We've nicknamed Passing Cloud's main lounge, "The Sweatlodge" thanks to the warming power of its gas heater, seen in the back right corner. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

We’ve nicknamed Passing Cloud’s main lounge, “The Sweatlodge” thanks to the warming power of its gas heater, seen in the back right corner. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The crazy thing about the rain was that you could see it coming: it rolled across the beach from the west, enveloping the shoreline in a thick, rolling mist before crashing into us just as we were about to board the Zodiac to rejoin the Passing Cloud.

We’d gone ashore around 1530 for an impromptu beach combing session led by our resident European Explorer, Kai. No two beaches we have explored here in Gwaii Haanas have been alike, and our scramble around Poole Point was no exception.

Disembarking the Passing Cloud this afternoon for a beach scramble near Scudder Point. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Disembarking the Passing Cloud this afternoon for a beach scramble near Scudder Point. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Unlike the other beaches we have explored, this one was relatively exposed to the open expanse of Hecate Strait on the eastern coast of Gwaii Haanas. Its shallows were littered with boulders and slippery granite rocks, and its shores pockmarked with the detritus of so many winter storms.

Ashore on Scudder Point. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Ashore on Scudder Point. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

By far the most numerous find on the beach – after the inevitable driftwood – were the mussel and oyster shells, which cracked and shattered under our weight like glass as we made our way along.

Human debris was also visible here, though only a few glass bottles existed along with a car tire and a 50-gallon drum. Once again, the bottles bore Japanese characters on their lids and bodies, though the tire looked to be American or Canadian.

Nearly the entire surface of the beach was made up of shells that crunched and snapped with each step. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Nearly the entire surface of the beach was made up of shells that crunched and snapped with each step. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Here Comes The Rain Again: literally after taking this photo, the downpour began. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Here Comes The Rain Again: literally after taking this photo, the downpour began. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Our unexpected soaking brought us back to the Passing Cloud and the inviting heat of the lounge…er…lodge. Hot coffee and tea were waiting for us, and most of my fellow guests took the opportunity to make use of the shower. Because water is limited onboard, guests are kindly asked to shower every other day; a not-uncommon practice on small sailing ships.

While I do miss showering every day, the casual atmosphere onboard is super-nice and easygoing. Most guests wear the same clothes each day for exploring, and no one cares too terribly much how their hair is, or if their pants have a little mud on them. It’s all par for the course. Personally, I haven’t shaved my face since Monday; partially because I want to help conserve water, and part because I feel it’s almost a nautical rite of passage.

Despite the rain, we enjoyed another fantastic dinner tonight outdoors on the ship's fantail, thanks to an awning that was put up in the afternoon. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Despite the rain, we enjoyed another fantastic dinner tonight outdoors on the ship’s fantail, thanks to an awning that was put up in the afternoon. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

That’s the other thing that I am enjoying greatly about my Outer Shores experience: it’s a total break from the everyday. Everything takes place in the vast expanse of the outdoors, in one of the most remote places in the world. Sure, Gwaii Haanas is only a two-hour flight from Vancouver, but it’s a world apart from anything I have seen before.

To me, Gwaii Haanas is as distinct a place as I have seen, and ranks up there with my journeys through arctic Norway, South Africa, and Australia’s remote region known as The Kimberley.

A few hearty folks sailed past us as we enjoyed dinner onboard Passing Cloud. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

A few hearty folks sailed past us as we enjoyed dinner onboard Passing Cloud. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Passing Cloud is the smallest ship I have ever sailed aboard, with a total capacity of just eight guests and four crew. I think a lot of cruisers who may be used to much larger ships might worry they’d feel “trapped” on a ship of this intimate size, but that simply isn’t the case. Rather than being one of a crowd, small ships like Passing Cloud give you the chance to connect with both guests and crew in a way you just can’t aboard larger ships.

Captain Russ holds our nightly Chart Meeting in the Sweatlodge. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Captain Russ holds our nightly Chart Meeting in the “Sweatlodge”. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Gwaii Haanas is one of those destinations that lends itself well to Passing Cloud’s intimate size. Because of its diverse ecosystem, you can’t escape the educational component, nor would you want to. The result has been five days that are unlike anything I’ve experienced at sea before.

If any if the above sound remotely appealing, you’ll find yourself swept away by the Passing Cloud and her crew.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

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